A day in the life of a learning management system
by Clive Shepherd
Every training manager thinks they know what a learning management system is. The problem is that they're all thinking different things. Is it a learning portal? A training records system? An authoring tool? A
competency management system? A virtual classroom? The answer is that it could be all of these things, but rarely is. The term 'learning management system'
(LMS) embraces just about any use of web technology to plan, organise, implement and control aspects of the learning process.
This article looks at the ways in which an LMS can support the full range of everyday functions of the training department - a metaphorical day in the life of a learning management system. You'll be able to see whether the support that is available at each hour of the day - or stage in the learning process - is important to you, or even necessary given the systems and processes that you already have in place.
9am Assessing the job
10am Assessing the student
11am Measuring the gap
12am Creating learning resources
1pm Cataloguing resources
2pm Filtering resources
3pm Building the plan
4pm Agreeing the plan
5pm Offline delivery
6pm Online delivery
7pm Monitoring progress
8pm Assessing results
By now, you're probably feeling the pressure. In the 21st Century, no self-respecting, aspiring e-business can consider itself worthy of the name without the support of a enterprise-wide, web-enabled, learning management system (LMS). We're not quite sure what it is, but we know we're going to be left behind if we don't own one pretty damn soon. After all, we're told by such luminaries as John Chambers, CEO of Cisco, that 'the biggest growth in the Internet, and the area that will prove to be one of the biggest agents of change, will be e-learning'. We also know that 'managing learning' is what training managers are paid to do and that a learning management system should therefore be of more than passing interest.
Every training manager thinks they know what a learning management system is. The problem is that they're all thinking different things. It's the same thing as a learning portal. No it's not, it's an authoring system. It's another name for a training records system. No, no, no, it's a way of managing skills and competencies.
Way off - it's a virtual classroom.
OK, so what is it then? The answer is that it could be all of these things, but rarely is. The term 'learning management system' embraces just about any use of web technology to plan, organise, implement and control aspects of the learning process. Hardly any system supports all these processes and hardly any organisation needs them to. Matching your needs to what's available is incredibly complex and confusing, because you're usually left comparing apples with pears.
So, in this article, we're going to look at the ways in which an LMS can support the full range of everyday functions of the training department - a metaphorical day in the life of a learning management system. You'll be able to see whether the support that is available at each hour of the day - or stage in the learning process - is important to you, or even necessary given the systems and processes that you already have in place.
- Assessing the job
'Assessing the job' is probably not the first thing you want to do at 9am - perhaps after the coffee and croissants and an update on Big Brother, but not before. But an LMS is so logical and hard working that it starts right on time and with the right tasks.
You can't - or shouldn't - be organising training without first knowing what skills and competencies are required to effectively fulfil the responsibilities of each of the major roles in your organisation. An LMS can't help to reduce the painstaking work required in defining competency frameworks across an organisation. What it can do is record these in a systematic way, so that - later in the day - they can be used as the basis for curriculum planning and the analysis of training and developmental needs.
Of course, competencies aren't the only way of looking at job requirements. In some cases, specific qualifications or certifications are essential prerequisites to landing a job. In other cases, employees have to obtain a license in order to carry out a particular task and then be re-licensed on a regular basis. The LMS can do more than store this information - it can act on it to ensure employees are informed of their obligations and are pointed to the appropriate learning resources.
LMSs that can help you assess the job include: Saba, Docent, Ingenium, Teamscape.
Many other HR systems provide this functionality but do not incorporate sufficient additional learning management functionality to be regarded as LMSs. On the other hand, some LMSs, such as Solstra and Registrar, do not contain competency management features but can be integrated with third party systems.
- Assessing the student
Jobs do not, of course, exist in isolation. Information about jobs is only relevant when it is compared to information about the people that currently hold them, or might hold them in the future.
We now know what competencies, qualifications and licenses are required for each job. Our next task is to find out what competencies, qualifications and licenses our people have. An LMS can help you in doing this in a number of ways: by recording the competencies, qualifications and licenses that a person already holds; by listing the requirements of a person's current job or a job that they aspire to; by enabling the person themselves, their manager, peers or subordinates to rate them against these requirements; by delivering online assessments linked to job requirements; by recording course completions that are linked to job requirements; by recording a person's aspirations for their future career; by recording a profile of the user's learning preferences in terms of method, locations and times.
Generally, only LMSs that assess jobs also provide the facility to assess students against job requirements. However, many LMSs will record a student's learning achievements, particularly when the learning is accessed through the LMS. They will also be able to deliver online assessments, recording the results in the individual's records.
- Measuring the gap
It's coffee time, but the work must go on. Trainers proficient in training needs analysis will know that we now have enough information to measure the learning gap - the difference between what the job requires and what the person can offer.
An LMS can help you by comparing an individual's profile with that of their current job; by comparing an individual's profile with that of a job to which they aspire (typically internal to an organisation, but could be across a sector, say the IT industry); by identifying individuals best matched to a particular job's requirements; by identifying the learning gap across all holders of a particular job.
Only those systems that record competencies for both jobs and individuals can perform gap analysis.
- Creating learning resources
Revealing the gap is informative, but it can also be scary, particularly if you are short of the resources needed to do anything about it. No LMS will help you to design classroom events or offline media, but many incorporate tools that can help you to develop online materials.
LMSs that include facilities for creating learning resources include: Saba, Docent, Solstra, TopClass, WebCT, Click2Learn.
The best results are probably obtained from stand-alone authoring systems - Dreamweaver (with the Coursebuilder templates), Toolbook II, Trainersoft, DazzlerMax - the output from which should work with just about any
An LMS should also be able to support all popular off-the-shelf courseware from publishers such as NETg, SmartForce, DigitalThink, Xebec, Maxim and
- Cataloguing resources
It can be extremely difficult for students to find the resources they need to meet their learning needs, whether this is inside an organisation or externally. One of the simplest, yet most powerful functions of an LMS is to list all of the resources available. Pretty well any LMS is capable of listing online courses, but you may find it helpful to list all other available resources, including classroom events and offline media (CD-ROMs, books, workbooks, etc.).
LMSs that include competency management facilities will also include the capability to cross-reference learning resources to competencies. This means they can then automatically list those resources that address an identified gap.
Some systems act more as course-finders, providing access to the many 1000s of external courses in the market, face-to-face and online. Although these systems can be extremely useful, they are better categorised as learning portals or even learning procurement systems, rather than fully-fledged management systems.
Any LMS will catalogue all the resources that are loaded on to its system for online delivery. Many will also catalogue classroom courses and offline media.
LMSs that can cross-reference resources to competency frameworks include: Saba, Docent, Ingenium,
LMSs that act as a portal to internal and external courses of all types include: hotcourses.com, thinq, worldoftraining.com, bookacourse.com,
Major publishers, such as NETg and SmartForce, provide their own LMSs. Although providing powerful functionality, these are primarily geared to the support of the publisher's own content.
Systems such as Registrar, that were originally designed to manage classroom training, have been enhanced to handle online training as well. As a result, Registrar can now be regarded as a fully-fledged
- Filtering resources
As anyone who has used a search engine will know, it's next to useless to be presented with a listing of 2000 items that match our criteria. An LMS can help to narrow down the search for the right resources by acting as a filter: finding those face-to-face and real-time online events that match our time constraints; finding those face-to-face events that take place in suitable locations, e.g. the Bahamas; finding those events that have available spaces; finding resources that match our budget, from deluxe to cheapest possible; finding resources that match our preferences for method (classroom, self-study, etc.); finding those resources that have been reviewed favourably by previous students; finding those resources that are provided by an organisation's preferred suppliers.
LMSs will vary enormously in the sophistication of the filters they can provide (if any!).
A site that specialises in providing reviews of e-learning courses is e-learningdirectory.com.
- Building the plan
Of course it is possible for students to simply find resources from the catalogue that meet their needs and then go ahead and make use of them, as and when they please. But an LMS can also help an organisation to administer a more planned approach: by allowing organisations to assign courses directly to individuals or groups; by assisting individual students in selecting the right combination of resources to meet their needs; by sequencing selected resources sensibly; by recording this sequence in the form of a learning plan.
LMSs that provide facilities for courses to be directly assigned to individuals or groups, and which support the concept of individual learning plans include: Saba, Docent, Teamscape, Solstra, Ingenium.
- Agreeing the plan
Providing easy access to learning resources is one thing. Providing controls where those resources are scarce (say places on classroom courses) or where budget is involved is another. An LMS can help you by limiting access to resources which are aimed at specific target groups; providing a wait-listing service for classroom events; obtaining approvals electronically; providing a range of payment schemes, including prepayments, credit lines and pay-as-you-go.
LMSs vary in the extent to which they provide support in this area. The need for e-commerce and authorisation facilities depends on whether the content is home-made or off-the-shelf and whether the LMS is operated by an organisation for its own needs or resources are offered to the public at large, or even customers and suppliers.
- Offline delivery
Even the most optimistic forecasts for e-learning do not predict the total demise of traditional methods. Messy as it may be, organisations will have to continue managing a wide range of formats, often in innovative new combinations.
Here's just some of the ways in which an LMS could support the delivery of learning offline: by providing automatic, online messaging to course participants, including the transmission of joining instructions and pre-work; by providing learners with collaborative tools, such as discussion forums and chat rooms; by managing inventory for items such as CD-ROMs, manuals and books.
LMSs that provide at least some support for offline delivery include: Saba, Docent, Ingenium, Registrar. Expect all major LMSs to gear themselves to supporting all forms of learning.
- Online delivery
Of course you would expect an LMS to support the delivery of online learning resources and you wouldn't be wrong. As a minimum, an LMS should be able to launch online, self-study materials, whether these are interactive lessons or simple Word, PDF and PowerPoint files. An LMS may also support collaboration between learners and tutors, through discussion forums and real-time, virtual classrooms.
Practically any LMS will support the delivery of online, self-study materials.
LMSs that provide support for asynchronous and real-time collaboration include Saba, LearningSpace, TopClass and
Real-time collaboration tools, such as Centra and LearnLinc, can be integrated with a wide variety of
- Monitoring progress
It's getting late, but dedicated training managers will be keen to stay in the office a little longer to see how their e-learners are doing. For the first time, all interested parties - not just the training manager, but administrators, students, managers and tutors - can keep right up-to-date with events: who's done what to whom, when did they do it and where?
It's not difficult for an LMS to track who has registered for what learning and, if that learning is online, when and for how long they are logged on. To obtain much more information about online learning, such as test scores, requires data to be passed from the learning materials back to the LMS. For that to work smoothly requires an adherence to standards by both the LMS and the content providers.
All major LMSs provide comprehensive tracking facilities. Most will also be committed to the emerging AICC, IMS and IEEE standards. You may want to pass training records from the LMS to your existing HR systems, in which case you should find out who has the facility to support this.
- Assessing results
In the past, life's always been too hectic to do a proper job of training evaluation - at least that's been our excuse. With an LMS, excuses will no longer be acceptable, because so much of the information we need will be served up on a plate.
How can an LMS help you to evaluate your training? Well, first of all it can measure usage - bums on seats. More importantly, it can measure completions - how many people are actually finishing courses. It can record reactions (you know, the happy sheets) and if your courses include online assessments, it can also provide some measure of the learning that's been achieved.
Looking to the big picture, an LMS can make it much easier for you to keep a track of costs. And if it incorporates competency management facilities, you can plot how narrow that learning gap is becoming. There's no guarantee that you'll like what you discover, but then, as Bill Gates recommends in his book Business @ The Speed of Thought, 'bad news must travel fast'.
It's been a long day for you, but for the LMS work never stops. While you're at home recovering, your international employees are busy accessing the system for learning on an anytime, anywhere basis. No need for you to worry about this now, because the records will be there for you to look at in the morning.
As you will have seen, LMSs come with a great many knobs on and, as the great feature wars continue, the number of knobs will grow exponentially. What you have to work out is which of these knobs you'll ever need to turn. Look where can you get the most added-value in a reasonable time and at a reasonable cost, without sacrificing the opportunity to add more knobs later. Don't rely on this article for detail - by the time you read it, many of the systems mentioned here will be capable of doing much more. Launch your browser and get surfing, starting with the links below.
Learning Management Systems:
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